Tag Archives: stand up

Dave Cohen & John Dowie: Why they became comedians in the good old days

Dave Cohen & John Dowie

Writer/performers Dave Cohen and John Dowie are one gig away from the end of their current world tour.

“Yes,” Dave told me, “it’s a world tour of independent London bookshops.”

They are at Clapham Books this coming Thursday.

“Why,” I asked, “are two people with no new books out doing a book tour?”

“In my case,” John told me, “to try and get enough people to pledge to my book – The Freewheeling John Dowie – to get it out.”

Dave Cohen with his new book at last night’s launch

Dave at the launch of his How To comedy book

Dave said: “I did do a book and basically published it myself – How to be Averagely Successful at Comedy.”

“How did that do?” John asked him.

“It does as well as I can be bothered to flog it. I am going to do another one.”

“So,” I asked, “on this world tour, you are doing a split bill in these bookshop shows and reading from your books both published and unpublished?”

“No,” said Dave, “I’m doing a show. I tried to write a novel and it didn’t work. So I thought: Maybe it’s a sitcom. But that didn’t work either. So I thought Well, maybe it’s a 40-minute stand-up poem.”

“Why didn’t it work as a novel?” I asked.

“I don’t know how to write novels. Well, maybe I do. But I didn’t have whatever it takes to do it.”

“I think,” said John, “you have to write quite a lot before you can get a good one out of yourself.”

“I think,” I suggested, “writing a novel is the most difficult thing to do.”

“Well no,” said John, “having your leg taken off without an anaesthetic is worse. Tell us your dirty secrets, English paratrooper, or we will make you write a novel! That never happens.

Guns ’n’ Moses (L-R Mike Cosgrave, Al Murray, Dave Cohen, Jim Tavare)

Guns ’n’ Moses were (L-R) Mike Cosgrave, Al Murray, Dave Cohen and Jim Tavaré

“To write a good joke…” suggested Dave. “Maybe 10 words, 12 words? To write a really fantastic joke: that’s a really hard skill. The most brilliant comedy writers who can do that are not necessarily that good at being able to write characters. You get people who are successful gag writers who can’t do a sitcom as good. It’s a different skill.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “Horses for courses. Like comperes and comedians… It’s a different skill. Really good comedians are very often shit MCs…”

“Anyway,” said Dave, “my show… It’s called Music Was My First Love and it’s about me falling out with my dad. I did it at the Edinburgh Fringe and I think that’s in the contract. If you do a show in Edinburgh and you’re a male comic it has to be about not getting on with your dad. Did you ever do a ‘dad’ show, John?”

“It’s in me forthcoming book,” John replied. “The Freewheeling John Dowie. And I did a show about Joseph, father of Jesus Jesus, My Boy I guess that was partly to do with parenting.”

“That was great,” said Dave. “I saw it in a packed West End theatre.”

“Starring…?” I asked John.

Tom Conti starred in John Dowie’s Jesus, My Boy

Tom Conti starred in John Dowie’s Jesus, My Boy

Tom Conti.”

“Did you ever perform it yourself?” Dave asked him.

“When I first wrote it I did. Nothing sharpens the writer’s pen more than having to go on stage shovelling filth over the footlights yourself – Then it’s:  God! That scene’s going! That’s gone! THAT’s gone!”

“I’ve only done my show eight times,” Dave told me. “The first time I did it, it was about an hour and ten minutes long. The poor people who saw that first show really sat through my entire life story! So I got up the next morning and had a cup of tea and cut and cut and cut it down to about 55 minutes. Then John here told me thought 40 minutes was enough. So I cut it and cut it again and it’s now 40 minutes long.”

“How did you two meet?” I asked.

“I was,” explained Dave, “a fan of John before he even knew I existed. He was one of the pioneers in the punk days. I got into punk and, at the same time as I was setting up my record label in Bristol, John was appearing on Factory Records. There was a very small circle of people who were doing music and comedy in the late 1970s. There was Alberto y Lost Trios Paranoias and John Dowie and that was kind of it. Billy Connolly sometimes – though he was Folk, really.”

“I became a big John Dowie fan and bought this record which had John on and also happened to have Joy Division and the Durutti Column. As a result, I suddenly became really hip among my Bristol contemporaries. Wow! You’re into Factory Records! But it was really just for this funny Brummie bloke who did comedy songs.”

An early John Dowie album by the young tearaway

An early John Dowie album – this one was on Virgin Records

“How,” I asked, “did a Brummie end up on Factory Records in Manchester?”

“I lived near Manchester,” John told me.

“What year is this?”

“Around 1978.”

“You did gigs with Nico when she was living in Manchester,” I prompted.

“Briefly. She lived with John Cooper Clarke. She was being managed by a guy in Manchester.”

“And you, Dave,” I said used to share with Kit Hollerbach and Jeremy Hardy

“It was very pleasant living with them,” he said. “But a single person living with a couple was very…”

“You were a gooseberry,” suggested John.

“Yes. In fact,” Dave added, “John O’Farrell always said he wanted to write a sitcom based on me: a single bloke living with a married couple. I said: Yeah. Thanks for taking the sad loneliness of my pathetic life and turning it into comedy.”

“He never tried it?” I asked.

“He came close. He was writing with Mark Burton at the time and that was one of their ideas.”

“I am,” said John, “going to sue God for my life. It was a disappointment from start to finish. It didn’t say that on the label.”

“Anyway,” I said to Dave, “basically you were a John Dowie groupie.”

“I was,” he agreed, “and then, years later, I was doing a gig at the Earth Exchange and I think John turned up with Arthur Smith and we went for a drink afterwards. So there I was with my absolute god hero and it was… eh… It was character-building.”

John laughed out loud.

Dave explained: “He basically told me what was wrong with my act and he was absolutely right. I went away and thought: He’s absolutely right! I don’t look at the audience! I do move around too much.”

Dave got better. In the 1980s and 1990s,  with Pete Sinclair, he co-wrote several songs for ITV’s Spitting Image, including one when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher left office.

“When I first started,” John Dowie said, “I was up in Edinburgh and a theatre director came to see it, liked the material and hated the performance. I spent a week with him in London learning how not to walk away every time you get to the punchline. Why do you keep walking away on the punchlines? Stand still and say the punchline! Of course, the reason you walk away on the punchline is because you’re frightened of not getting a laugh and then, because you do it, you don’t get a laugh.

“They were quite nice,” John continued, “those 1980s days, because everyone was sort-of-doing the same gigs and hanging out in each others pockets and drinking in the same bars and going to the same nightclubs and slipping in the same sick. And it was not always mine. It was very camaraderie orientated, wouldn’t you say?”

“It’s a career now,” Dave agreed. “In the early 1980s, nobody who was doing it was thinking: Right, OK. This is my life now. I’m going to work as a stand-up, get some TV work and…”

“Well,” said John, “there was Mike Myers. He was the Paul Simon of the comedy generation. Came to London. Told everybody how he was going to be rich and famous in three years or else it was over. Went off and proved himself to be completely right.”

The Comedy Store Players (L-R Paul Merton, Dave Cohen, Kit Hollerbach, Neil Mullarkey, Mike Myers

Very early Comedy Store Players included (L-R) Paul Merton, Dave Cohen, Kit Hollerbach, Neil Mullarkey and Mike Myers

“But,” said Dave, “he was still also very much a part of the spirit of it. I worked a lot with him at that time. When we set up the Comedy Store Players, he was fantastic. He was very giving and very much into the whole ethos of that whole stand-up scene. But he had come from Canada and…”

John interrupted: “I assumed he was from the US.”

“No,” said Dave. “Kit Hollerbach was the American one. She brought that professionalism and Mike Myers brought the improv side thing as well. So it became sort-of professional at that point. They made it a professional thing. Which was not a bad thing. A couple of years before that, nobody would see somebody like Paul Merton and think: Oh, right, this guy’s gonna be the hugest comedy star in the country and successful for 30 years.”

“So,” I asked, “if, before this, the incentive was NOT to build a career, why was anyone doing it?”

“It was better than working,” John replied.

“And what,” I asked, “are you going to do after this world tour is finished?”

“God knows,” Dave replied.

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Stand-up comedy with Sophocles and Justin Bieber during World Cup football

Michael Brunström nails grapes on Jusin Bieber’s face

Brunström nails grapes on Justin Bieber’s face

Last night, I went to see Stand Up Greek Tragedy in Brixton, South London – one of the regular Stand Up Tragedy nights organised by Dave Pickering, a man with an obvious and commendable taste for the bizarre.

Last night’s wildly diverse show somehow included genuine Oxbridge Classics scholar Michael Brunström aka The Human Loire (recently blogged about) using a hammer to nail grapes onto Justin Bieber’s face – well, a large cut out of it – while gargling Sophocles’ Ode To Man using Listerene antiseptic mouthwash. Fears that Michael may go mainstream seem unfounded.

Joz Norris bath

Joz Norris claimed to have mis-calculated act

The show ended with Joz Norris (recently blogged about) taking his clothes off to sit in a plastic container he had brought along simply so he could do an Archimedes/Eureka gag.

Joz claimed not to have thought-through the fact that, by STARTING his act with this, he had to perform the rest of his routine disrobed with a pink plastic shower cap on his head.

Somehow, it seemed natural that the show should end with the whole audience (including Joz sitting in his plastic container) singing along to Jarvis Cocker and Pulp performing Common People.

The show will be uploaded as a podcast on the Stand Up Tragedy website but, alas, sans visual surrealism.

My night was not yet over, though, because it was the first night of the World Cup in Brazil and, outside Brixton tube station, I passed as a man holding a two-foot tall cuddly penguin was in mid-argument with a man who had one-and-a-half arms. His left arm was cut off into a stump at the elbow. I have no idea what started the argument but, when I passed by, the Penguin Man was saying:

a football

a football

“…didn’t go to a fucking interior design school.”

To which the man with one-and-a-half arms almost visibly spat: “Brazil is the fucking HOME of football.”

“IN MY ARSE!” shouted The Penguin Man.

“AND THAT’S WHY!” shouted the man with one-and-a-half arms.

The penguin remained mute and immobile throughout.

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What the stand-up comedian shouted at the audience who did not laugh at him…

SennMicrophone_wikipediaIn my more pretentious moments, I think maybe this blog occasionally reflects subcultures in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

A few years ago, I went to see a comedian. He no longer performs comedy.

There was a small audience watching him in a small basement. About halfway through his act, he got annoyed with the fact his jokes and stories were not getting laughs. I started to record what he then said. I have removed anything which I think might identify him.

This is what he said. There is quite a lot of swearing in it.

_____________________________________________________

Sometimes I go down really well. Other times it’s like drawing teeth. I’m so shit I’ve got so many friends on Facebook – so many so-called fucking friends – I spent £6,000 to get someone to build a fucking website for me. He done a Twitter page for me then, after one year, I had to sue him to get £2,000 back. Then I gave that £2,000 to someone else and he built another website for me and I spent a month working on a free e-book – three fucking people signed up for that and I knew one of them personally. The other two were at the other side of the Atlantic. That shows you how much people… I should just give up, shouldn’t I?

I should get a real job. That’s what I should do. Get a real job. But I hate having a boss. Bosses are cunts. Money is an illusion created by the bankers. People get work just to chase money just to get drunk at the weekend.

I’m only toying with you because, when you’re dying on stage, there’s only one place left to go – and that’s poetry. So are you ready for some shit poetry?

(HE THEN STARTS TO READ VERSES FROM A POEM)

That normally gets a laugh, so you cunts have got no sense of humour. I’ll continue anyway, because I love you from the bottom of my heart.

(HE THEN READS MORE OF THE POEM)

So far so good? Another four verses?

(THREE MEMBERS OF THE SPARSE AUDIENCE GET UP AND LEAVE)

Right, so only five people left.

(HE CONTINUES THE POEM TO THE END; ONE PERSON CLAPS)

At least he made the effort.

I think this should be my new routine. Actually it is my new routine. Clear the room of the annoying cunts. I hate people, you know that? I fucking hate people. You’re all a bunch of cunts. You all think you’re something special in this world. You go to your jobs and nobody talks about anything real any more. Nobody talks about love. Nobody talks about doing anything worthwhile. They’re all too busy watching Big Brother.

Wow!

(HE STARTS SHOUTING AT THE FIVE REMAINING MEMBERS OF THE AUDIENCE)

What do we actually do that actually means anything? It means fuck all. You know what means something? Getting together… in… exploratory ways. Stepping away from the elite power fucking structure that’s in control of our lives every day and fucking getting together and fucking shagging each other. Experiencing ecstasy together. Using our bodies. People say we have DNA like chimpanzees and matriarchal women screaming women and they greet each other by rubbing their genitals together like this and they have sex to establish social bonds in the group and that’s what stops arguments. That’s what stops men from dictating. Having their balls rubbed. Oh, thank god for that! I don’t need to dominate to be an alpha male!

We’re like that. We’re fucking human beings. We’ve got a soul, we’ve got a spirit and we should start using it, in my opinion, because we don’t fucking do it.

(HE STARTS TO SHOUT)

What do we do? Comedy? We sit and we pretend to laugh at his shit! We don’t tell him it’s shit! We sit through the cunt! I’ve sat though hundreds of shit, but nobody sits through my shit! You guys are good, I like you.

(THERE IS A LONG PAUSE)

I feel better for that.

It’s true.

Nobody… There’s no love in this world, you know? There’s not enough feeling, is there? They say: Come and listen to my meaningless drivel that I’ve been doing for the past 45 minutes. I don’t want to act. I want to share myself with you. I want to give you everything I’ve got so that we can evolve out of this fucking hell that we’re all living in – this fucking dimension.

We should respect Mother Earth.

That’s why I liked my job. They offered me £30,000 to leave. I said: You’re offering me £30,000 to leave? You should be offering me that to fucking stay in this fucking shit hole. So I bit their hand off. My friend asked me What are you’re going to do? Haven’t you got any ambitions?Yes. I have. The main one is to get the fuck out of this place, cos you’re raping fucking Mother Earth and I’m taking £2,000 a fucking month to do it. You all think you’re somebody fucking special. You’re all a bunch of moaning-faced bastards that the universe has thrown together to let you see a mirror image of exactly who you are so you can evolve out of it and get the fuck out of there.

But, no, they just continue with what they do.

I don’t like punchlines any more.

I like ranting.

I’ve discovered a new form of comedy.

It’s just ranting.

(HE STARTS SCREAMING)

Bollocks!… Bollocks, cunts and wankers!… That’s what you all are! There’s nobody does anything worthwhile!

Club owners put six acts on every night. OK, I’m shit but they won’t give me five minutes. No. She’s got her people; he’s got his people. They fucking use you. Cos that’s what everyone does in this world, isn’t it? They use you. Everyone uses each other. They don’t actually love each other because they don’t love themselves. That’s what it comes down to. Nobody loves themselves any more.

You can only love from what you’ve got inside and we’re all fucking brainwashed from the day we were born to fucking fit into the system, fit into that small square and be a fucking good servant to the power elite that’s been pissing all over us from a great height.

I mean, THEY’RE fucking psychotic criminals and we let THEM dictate to US so how fucked-up are WE? You know what I’m saying? These guys are not superhuman and great. WE are fucking human beings and we’ve got a heart and a soul and it’s brainwashed out of us by the time we’re six years old by watching television.

You know that box we’ve got? A hypnotic box in our living rooms every day?

We don’t take care of our children and educate them on the law and things that actually matter. We just sit them at the box and give them Big Brother and let them tell them what to think and what to buy and what to do all their lives and get up and get a job in their factories. Then eventually they retire and go on holiday somewhere in some caravan club for 20 years and die with their whole life never having one single original thought.

(THERE IS A LONG SILENCE)

That’s my new routine. I hope you like that.

(THE AUDIENCE LAUGHS)

Stuff like that. That’s what I’m going to talk about from now on.

(TWO PEOPLE GET UP TO LEAVE)

No, there are jokes coming. There are. Thanks for coming. Take care. Nice to meet you. Goodbye.

(ONE OF THE REMAINING THREE AUDIENCE MEMBERS ASKS: “Apart from that, how’s your day been?”)

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Chasing pussy at Edinburgh Fringe + Lewis Schaffer develops terminal cancer

Lewis Schaffer (left) , Lach and Phil Kay last night

Lewis Schaffer (left in white), Lach and Phil Kay last night

It was 01.40am this morning, when I left Bob Slayer’s first Midnight Mayhem show which has no structure and simply has performers and members of the (if they want to) paying public doing pretty much whatever comes into Bob Slayer’s head – a risky concept at the end of the day, given Bob’s proclivity for drink.

Frank Sanazi croons “It’s Auschwitz" last night

Frank Sanazi crooned about Auschwitz craft

The show was still going strong with Phil Kay just about to start his second musical set.

Earlier, Frank Sanazi had performed one song to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s Witchcraft which he told us he now no longer sings in public (because of too many complaints) – Auschwitzcraft. And Lewis Schaffer had refused to perform his legendary three-part Holocaust joke.

A punter called Sally said it was her third visit to the Fringe over the years and she and her man had seen three shows at the major venues over the course of the day, two of which she said were “shit”. She asked what were the requirements for performing on the Fringe.

Kate Copstick, there to review Midnight Mayhem for the Scotsman newspaper, told Sally that it was a free-access festival and if you paid (one particular major venue) £5,000 up-front, then that was your qualification for performing.

Midnight Mayhem was happening in Bob’s Bookshop which, as a Pay What You Want show within the Free Festival within the overall Edinburgh Fringe, is in a rather different league but it was one which Sally seemed to say was what she had thought she was going to experience when she came to the Fringe for the first time. The earlier shows had not been this anarchic.

Andy Zapp - the current man in my bed at Edinburgh Fringe

Andy Zapp – the current man in my bed at Edinburgh Fringe

My day had started oddly, having breakfast with Lewis Schaffer at midday. Also at the meal – well it was a snack, really – were Ivor Dembina and the man currently sleeping in my bed, Andy Zapp. (I should point out I am sleeping in the living room next door.)

“What’s your best advice to young new comedians?” Ivor Dembina asked Andy.

“It’s good to make money while you’re still shit,” replied Andy.

Lewis Schaffer told us that his Fringe show next year would be called Lewis Schaffer Has Cancer and would contain details of his battle with a life-threatening form of cancer.

“What sort of cancer?” I asked.

“I haven’t decided yet,” he replied. All Lewis Schaffer knows so far is that his show will have to be life-affirming and he says he feels he has to establish the title Lewis Schaffer Has Cancer early, in case someone else uses it.

In a press release later in the day, he wrote:

I have never had cancer, nor do I have cancer, but I hope someday to have cancer. Cancer worked for comic greats Andy Kaufman, Bill Hicks and Tig Notaro – why shouldn’t it work for me? My apologies to everyone who has cancer and everyone who hasn’t had cancer.

Has anyone seen Kitler? Lost in Edinburgh.

Anyone seen Kitler? Allegedly lost by F.Sanazi

At around the same time I received this press release, Frank Sanazi phoned me up with news that he was sticking up posters all over Edinburgh about the tragic loss of his pet cat Kitler. The feline was not, as far as he knew, dead but (he claimed) had gone missing in action on Thursday.

He told me he would give me more information if I came to see his show Frank Sanazi’s Das Vegas Night II (which I had already arranged to do.)

Yesterday was a day I had chosen to see shows by other acts I already knew. For example, I saw two shows by previous winners of the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality.

Johnny Sorrow (left) in The Bob Blackman Appreciation Society

Johnny Sorrow (left) – Bob Blackman Appreciation Society

The first was Johnny Sorrow, appearing as 50% of the Bob Blackman Appreciation Society. I laughed out loud throughout, something I rarely do. The Bob Blackman Appreciation Society Bonanza show included tap-dancing fleas and ‘the man with no act’ and – suitably for a show steeped in showbiz nostalgia and kitsch – it also included the soundtrack of an ITV trailer of the type I used to make for 20 years.

After the show, I chatted briefly with increasingly prestigious award-winning Johnny Sorrow and he told me:

“A couple of weeks ago in Stockport, Bob Blackman’s grand-daughter Abbie came to see our show. She lives in Macclesfield.”

“Poor woman,” I said. “How did she hear about you?”

“She saw us our name on the internet and thought What the hell’s this? and got in contact with us.”

Bob Blackman used to appear on TV hitting his head with a metal tray to the tune Mule Train. It was a memorable act, now sadly and unjustly forgotten by most subsequent generations of thrill-seekers.

“We found out where Bob Blackman actually started the act,” Johnny Sorrow told me yesterday. “It was at the Waterman’s Arms pub on the Isle of Dogs in London. At first, he used to do the act just by hitting the tray on his knees but then, one day, the Watermans Arms was so packed the tray couldn’t be seen, so he started hitting himself on the head with the metal tray and his fame just took off. His son Raymond told me that. You know you can get plaques put up on walls where cult comedians did famous things? We want a plaque up for Bob Blackman.”

The Rubberbandits at the Gilded Balloon yesterday

The rousing Rubberbandits at the Gilded Balloon yesterday

The second Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award winning act I saw yesterday was Ireland’s Rubberbandits, regaling a packed Gilded Balloon venue with their greatest hits including Spastic Hawk and Up The RA (including the appearance on stage of two balaklava-wearing fake IRA members).

I rather enjoyed the particularly bad taste of their Spoiling Ivan,

The Gilded Balloon seems to be on a roll this year. Earlier, I had seen two other shows by top-notch acts.

Janey Godley was untagged in Edinburgh yesterday

Janey Godley happily ungagged in Edinburgh

My chum Janey Godley has returned for two weeks only to the Edinburgh Fringe – after a break of a couple of years – with a stonkingly good show Janey Godley Is Ungagged mostly about social media.

But it also has one of the most interesting anti-police stories I have heard and Janey’s barnstorming performance occasionally teetered on the edge of successful rabble-rousing.

When she said she was thinking of standing as an MP (I think she was joking – although the late Margaret Thatcher once suggested Janey should enter politics) she was loudly cheered and, by the end, she was telling the audience to be ungagged and to realise words are just words and had them chanting along with her Cunt! Cunt! Cunt! which – as everyone knows – is a term of endearment in Glasgow.

Ashley Storrie with mother Janey at the Gilded yesterday

Ashley Storrie and mother Janey Godley at the Gilded Balloon

As always, Janey did the whole show unscripted and, for these particular Edinburgh shows, she is preceded by a 15-minute warm-up performed by her daughter Ashley Storrie.

I had never seen Ashley perform stand-up before. She got 4-star reviews at the Fringe when she performed as a 13-year-old in 1999, but lost interest in it shortly after that. A couple of years ago, she performed at the Fringe with sketch show Alchemy but, this year, she started doing pure stand-up again. I talked to her about it in January.

On-stage, she has her mother’s self-confidence and audience-controlling charm. Astonishing.

Juliette is torn between Gonzo and Jimmy Carr

Juliette Burton in her first grown-up solo show

As is Juliette Burton’s show When I Grow Up, also at the Gilded Balloon.

“I was walking round today flyering people,” Juliette told me after the show, “and I remembered the first time I came up to the Fringe in 2005, just as a punter. Back then, I was really, really jealous of all the performers and now I am one.”

“Which is what your show’s about,” I said. “realising dreams. Though the one thing you do not say in your show is that, as a kid, you wanted to be a comedian when you grew up.”

Juliette Burton gets a dream Fringe pass

Juliette gets her dream performer’s pass

“Not a stand-up comedian,” replied Juliette. “And that’s not what I am now. Why does comedy have to be stand-up? Why do you have to necessarily adhere to one specific form of comedy to be considered a comic performer? If you’re billed as a comedian, everyone assumes you’re going to do stand-up.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “I saw Janey Godley earlier this evening and she’s called a comedian, but she’s really not a traditional comedian – she’s a brilliant storyteller who gets laughs.”

“I don’t see,” continued Juliette, “why comedy has to be set-up/punchline/gag. Why can’t comedy take different forms? Mine is very mainstream storytelling, but it would not fit in the theatre section of the Fringe Programme: it would be too comedic. On the other hand, it’s not stand-up comedy.”

“The videos are very funny,” I said. “I normally don’t like videos plonked into live shows to attract TV producers. But your videos and recorded interviews are a seamless part of the live show.”

“I guess,” said Juliette, “that it’s poking fun at some of the social boundaries that we’ve enforced upon ourselves in ways that – I don’t want to give away what’s in the show, but I like to do things that might seem absurd and crazy and like a nutcase, but actually the real crazy thing is not to enjoy what you’re doing with your life.”

“I suppose,” I said, “that your enthusiastic presenting style says to the audience that it’s a showbiz, comedic piece, but it’s not actually..”

Juliette foregrounded by either arms or legs

Juliette (right) sings at rockfest T In the Park

“How can you define comedy?” Juliette interrupted. “I’m very honest on stage. In a way, a stand-up comedian’s routine is more dishonest than what I’m saying. Several people have told me in the last couple of days that they are tiring of stand-up because it’s so predictable. They actually want something a bit different, something to surprise them.

“Stand-up – however shocking it might be – swearing and taboo subjects – is no longer pushing any boundaries. So maybe redefining what a comedy show is might be the next boundary to push.”

“I cried at one point in your show,” I said. “Not from laughter. From sadness. Despite the fact I had seen the show before and knew what was coming. It has shades and the audience don’t see what’s coming. Sometimes comedy is best when you laugh AND cry”

Juliette’s pop promo for her song Dreamers (When I Grow Up) – recorded specially for her show – can be seen on YouTube and the song can bought online. All money made during the Fringe will be donated to Children In Need.

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Harry Deansway: UK comedy publisher turns Edinburgh Fringe stand-up comic

(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WSN)

Harry suggested I shoot him next to a rubbish bin last week

Harry suggested I shoot him next to a rubbish bin last week

Harry Deansway published and edited The Fix comedy magazine for several years. He has also written comedy criticism, promoted and produced comedy shows and managed and directed acts.

In August, he is performing as a stand-up in his first full-length comedy show at the Edinburgh Fringe.

“Was The Fix magazine your first thing?” I asked him when we met in London’s Soho last week.

“Pretty much, yeah.” he replied. “It went on for four years: I lost about £30,000 on it and, obviously, I fell out with a lot of people through it, as I imagine you have through your blog. Have you upset anyone?”

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“We would upset people on a monthly basis,” said Harry.

“Why on earth are you becoming a performer?” I asked.

“I’ve worked with a few acts,” replied Harry Deansway, “and they can be unreliable. I was doing a lot of work with other people and you get to a certain point when they go off with someone else and you’re left with nothing. So I thought I’d have a go at the performing side and, that way, I’m in complete control of my career.”

“Is your Edinburgh show going to be straight stand-up?” I asked.

“Without getting too pretentious about it…” started Harry.

“Feel free,” I told him.

“Well,” he continued, “straight stand-up, but working at a slightly different rhythm. Stand-up in its traditional form, but maybe subjects that aren’t as commercially dealt with, you know what I mean?”

“What sort of subjects?” I asked. “Chicken sexing? There’s a lot of money in chicken sexing.”

“I guess it’s more playing with the form of stand-up,” said Harry. “Obviously, I’ve observed a lot and understand the form a lot. Things like when acts get angry in a set and they’re not really angry. So I’ll do that in my act, but I’ll actually say I need to get angry for this bit.

“Deconstructing?” I suggested.

“Deconstructing,” agreed Harry. “There’s a lot of similarities between jazz and comedy in the rhythm and the improvisations. John Coltrane really inspired me for my Edinburgh show. The way he would take a song and break it down into its parts. It still sounds like a song, but it’s completely out of control and improvised. So sometimes it feels like he’s lost control of the song. That’s what I want to try and do with my Edinburgh show. Is it in control or isn’t it? Oh my god, he’s totally lost the audience! It’s fucked! And then you bring it back.

The Fix comedy magazine ran for four years

The Fix magazine ran for four years

“A deconstructed show, playing with the form, rhythms. A lot of comedy is like Build laughter until there’s a big laugh. I prefer to make it really awkward, get it worse and worse so people think it’s completely out of control and then you pierce that tension with a big laugh. It’s kind of the opposite of how other comedians do it. They like to build-and-build-and-build. I like to knock down and lower expectations.”

“That’s original,” I said. “trying to not get a laugh.”

“It’s been working pretty well recently,” said Harry.

“Isn’t there a chance people might think you’re a crap comic?” I asked.

“Yes, definitely,” said Harry.

“Would they be right?” I asked.

“I struggle to know the answer to that myself,” replied Harry. “Sometimes they would be; sometimes they wouldn’t be. Maybe inconsistent. Not crap.”

“How will you know,” I asked, “if you’re not getting a laugh successfully or not getting a laugh unsuccessfully?”

“It’s like Andy Kaufman,” said Harry. “People like that.”

“Or George Osborne,” I suggested.

“They make a career out of it,” said Harry. “It’s a long and hard road. I did a gig last night. The first three minutes, complete silence. Then some bloke in the front row leaned over to his mate and said Is it always this bad? and I said Do you think you could do better? and he said Yes, so he got up on stage and proceeded to tell two racist jokes. And the audience didn’t like me, but they hated him even more. It created this awful atmosphere that not even I could…”

“Well, you succeeded in being Andy Kaufman,” I said. “You know all comedians are mad. Do you aspire to be mad?”

“They are,” agreed Harry, “but to certain degrees. Some of it manifests itself in unreliability. In others it’s complete madness. Badly organised, unreliability, arguing all the time with people.”

“It’s OK to quote that?” I checked.

“Yes, you can quote anything,” Harry told me.

“There must have been something in you that was always a frustrated performer,” I suggested.

“Yes,” said Harry. “I’m definitely a happier person since performing comedy. Obviously there was a hole there.”

“So you are stopping being an entrepreneurial person?” I asked.

“No. What that did for me was give me a really good grounding, so that gives me a head’s start over any other act. I don’t mind doing my own admin and press, whereas that terrifies a lot of other acts. I’ve spent ten years as a highly unsuccessful businessman in the comedy industry.”

“Your show isn’t listed in the main Edinburgh Fringe Programme,” I said.

“As a marketing tool, I think it’s ineffective,” explained Harry.

“How long are you going to give yourself to become successful?”

“This Edinburgh. If I don’t win any awards, I’m giving up.”

“In September?” I asked.

“It needs to go well, I’ll tell you that much.”

“What happens if it doesn’t?” I asked.

“Over these last ten years,” said Harry. “I’ve had a feeling that I’m right. If it doesn’t work in August, then maybe I’m wrong.”

“Remind me what’s your Edinburgh Fringe show is called?” I asked.

Wrong Way.

“Because?” I asked.

“It just sounds good,” said Harry. “It’s a good hashtag for Twitter. My poster is me the wrong way round.”

The Fringe poster image for Harry Deansway: Wrong Way

The Fringe poster image for Harry Deansway: Wrong Way

“So this is going to be an anti-comedy comedy,” I said. “But is it going to work up to a climax?”

“Yes. But by messing around with the format of the Edinburgh show. It’s kind of taking the piss out of all those ‘journey’ shows where they get to the end and it’s poignant and all that bullshit. It’s really subverting that. I’ve seen so many Edinburgh shows and I hate any one that’s Joe Bloggs woke up one day and found his wife was cheating on him! Here’s the journey he took!”

“Doesn’t Andy Kaufman type anti-comedy only appeal to a minority audience, though?” I asked.

“But you can make a living out of it,” argued Harry, “though I haven’t even got to that stage yet.”

“You’d be happy making a living as opposed to being a superstar?” I asked.

“Oh, definitely,” said Harry. “Just the freedom… to… to keep innovating.” He laughed a rather embarrassed laugh. “That’s what I said, but I don’t mean it.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“It’s so bullshit. No, the freedom to build an audience who like what you’re doing and you can make a living out of it. The Stewart Lee / Simon Munnery model. It’s a longer process but, in the long term, you’re gonna have a more secure audience that are gonna want to see everything you do and it’s not going to be such a flash-in-the-pan thing. That’s what I’m doing, but I’m just in a hurry to get some sort of recognition. I’ve been doing this for ten years and I just don’t feel I’ve got the recognition I deserve, so I really need that.”

“What if reviewers don’t like your show?” I asked.

“They can say what they like,” replied Harry. “I watched this documentary about jazz and all the critics on it understood the form and theory of jazz and the way they spoke about it was amazing. But the majority of comedy critics are not up to scratch. In rock journalism, there’s a culture of Hunter S.Thompsons and Lester Bangs but it doesn’t feel like there’s been the same volume of good journalists. They’re all silver foxes.”

“I’m more of a slaphead fox,” I said.

“I set up a magazine – The Fix,” said Harry, “but really struggled to get interesting journalists for it. People who could really take the art of comedy seriously. I just don’t think there’s anyone who does that. We’re crying out for a great comedy journalist.”

“You’ve just started a podcast,” I said.

“Yes. Three or four weeks ago.”

“Why?”

“Profile,” replied Harry. “I interview big names and hope that they bring an audience to hear about me.”

“In our American cousins’ terms, how do you monetize that?” I asked.

Harry the performer - as he wants to be seen

Harry the comedy performer – the image he wants to be seen

“I’m not doing it to monetize it at the moment. It’s purely promotional for me and the act. Though, if someone set up a podcast advertising agency, there is money to be made there.”

“Perhaps you should do that,” I suggested.

“No thanks. I’m going to use all that knowledge for my own career. I’m not going to be helping acts any more. It’s all about me now. That’s what Edinburgh 2013 is all about. It’s my turn.”

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Tomorrow night, Chris Dangerfield risks performing comedy in Swansea again

Chris Dangerfield & Trevor Lock in Swansea last November

Chris Dangerfield (left) with Trevor Lock before their notorious Swansea gig last year

Last November, I blogged about comedian Chris Dangerfield’s visit to Swansea with Trevor Lock for a gig which, let us say, divided the audience.

At the time, Trevor told me: “A fair few people got up and left by the table-load, unable to stomach it. Others who stayed forgot they didn’t like it and found themselves laughing. Many just ignored what was happening on stage and just carried on with their Friday night but many also seemed to be only waiting for Chris to stop so they could start singing his name again.”

It was producer Richard Griffiths’ first gig as a promoter and also his first gig as a stand-up comedian. The evening was coincidentally filmed as part of a six-episode fly-on-the-wall BBC3 documentary series called Swansea Call Centre, due to be screened soon.

“The series is gonna be rammed with David Brent type characters,” Richard tells me.

By last November, the Beeb had been filming for over a year at the call centre where Richard then worked (he has recently left).

As he was in the process of organising his first comedy night and, as he had Chris Dangerfield and Trevor Lock coming from London to Swansea to perform, the film crew wanted to follow the storyline of Richard ‘going showbiz’.

“Will I become the first person in Britain to have his stand-up debut watched by over a million people?” Richard asked me this week. “I’m new to all this. I had always wanted to perform and it was a combination of that, Chris saying in one of your blogs that I was hilarious but ‘too scared’ to go on stage and an email from a mate that made my mind up. The BBC were there filming all night and I understand they are definitely using it as one of the stories in an episode… So, going by their usual figures, a million people will see my comedy debut… Is this a world record?”

It was a charity gig and Richard raised £2,000 that night. The girl concerned recently had her operation successfully.

But now – tomorrow – Richard has booked Chris Dangerfield back at his new Swansea comedy night, this time with by New Zealander Benjamin Crellin.

“Are you mad?” I asked Richard last night.

Richard Griffiths being filmed for BBC3 last November

Richard Griffiths being filmed for BBC3 last November

“Well,” he told me, “to put anything on in Swansea without the full blessing of the Freemasons you have to be mad. But Chris was on his way to drug detox last time, so the city ain’t seen the best of him yet. Anyway, I’m actively looking to upset everyone with these comedy nights purely to offset all the good work I do behind closed doors. I was threatened with ‘bad Ju-Ju’ by a local Jehovah if I had Dangerfield back in Swansea but it’s a risk worth taking.

“I packed my job in a few weeks back so, even though I make no money from these nights, I create employment for others from my lofty position of dole bum.”

I asked Chris Dangerfield if it was a mad idea for him to go back into what, last time, was like an over-sensitive lion’s den of a gig.

“Well,” he replied. “It’s good for comics. They shout at you throughout the whole gig, they throw things at you, they heckle in grunts and groans and people storm out ‘in protest’, not at what you’re saying but at what you’re not saying  – Where’s the jokes? they shout.

“All these things happen elsewhere of course but, with these gigs, it’s as if that bloke, woman or couple from one-in-three gigs everywhere else have all turned up to this gig. It teaches you an important lesson – the gig is about them, not you. They’ve paid to have a laugh. The comic is getting paid whatever happens. Lose the ego. If the audience are enjoying what they’re doing, just help facilitate that. Don’t get all uppity about it and don’t think But what about my story about the soap-dish?

“Richard’s Swansea gig is like a baptism of fire and gigs afterwards feel positively breezy in comparison.”

“So,” I asked, “are you going to tailor your show to the audience?”

Chris with Page 3 girl Brandy Brewer this week

Chris out in London with Page 3 girl Brandy Brewer this week

“Unless it’s one of my own 60-minute shows,” Chris said, “I don’t really know what I’m going to talk about until I’m on stage. I’ve got a lifetime of stories. Often, I’ll just start chatting with the audience and something will spark something off – a memory I’m excited to remember – and the audience responds to that.

“If they’re not playing ball, I’ll do something that I hope on the spot they’ll appreciate; which is another ability I had to learn, often painfully. Once, I opened with a 5 minute improvised song – mainly the repeated chorus What’s your favourite cake? I kept trying to get them to join in, convinced they would. But they didn’t.

“I’ve frequently also been politely asked just to leave. A promoter once called me over half way through a 30 minute set and said calmly, almost apologetically: Can you just stop, please. I’ll still pay you.”

“Did you learn anything from your last show in Swansea?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Chris replied. “I quite like the Swansea crowd. It’s not a nice place Swansea. In many important ways – such as cultural and economic – it is neglected and poverty-stricken. But the people are refreshingly human. There’s a simultaneous acceptance and pride. I like people from Swansea. And they chant my name a la football terraces for a good five minutes after I’ve walked on stage, which is both pleasant and easy money.”

The rather ominous poster for tomorrow’s gig

Apathy-destroying poster for gig tomorrow

From Richard’s point of view, though: “The apathy of the locals is my real issue. My Don from Sexy Beast ticket selling style don’t always work. This will be my third night promoting a gig. So apathetic locals, huge distances for comics to travel, my own debatable mental health and a war chest of about £26 makes it all seem a bit daft really. But what’s the choice? I’m only after a regular 150 needles I guess… but ideally all in the same haystack.”

“Have you got an escape plan?” I asked Chris Dangerfield. “A get-out strategy like the Americans should have had in Afghanistan?”

“Valium,” he answered.

“You got any photos from last time that I can use without people suing me?” I asked.

“Maybe on the other computer,” he replied. “I’ll look. Remember, Trevor Lock refused to go last time unless I stopped the smack and got by on codeine tablets. Predictably, I took about 30 and felt quite nice, but the camera picked up an altogether different image.”

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The Awkward Silence of sketch comedy: gigs I have embarrassingly never seen

The Awkward Silence: I have no idea what they look like either

Back on the 6th November, I got an e-mail from one Ralph Jones asking if I’d like a free ticket to come along and see The Awkward Silence host a show called Rufus Sewell Turns 45 which included four other acts but not Rufus Sewell.

Getting a free ticket meant I would save the £5 admission charge and I am a Scot brought up among Jews.

So I was going to go, but had to cancel at the very last moment.

I could not go to their November 19th show either.

Which brings us to their gig this Saturday.

I can’t go to that one either and the Awkward Silence seldom seem to come to London except on gig days. So Ralph Jones suggested, with a commendable tenacity for publicity, that I interview him by e-mail.

Clearly, I must have been weakening in the run-up period to my current coughing fits, as I said OK.

This is never a good idea. Always chat in the flesh.

ME: Who are you?

RALPH: The Awkward Silence. A sketch group made up of myself and Vyvyan Almond. We started in March 2011 and host regular nights in both Oxford and London.

ME: No, I meant, who are YOU?

RALPH: I’m the smaller one. I write our sketches and give myself all the good parts. I write stuff for other projects too – comic poetry; articles for The New Statesman and The Freethinker; and another comedy double-act thing called Fat Bat.

ME: Fuck me! You’re bloody intellectuals! Do I really want to see another bunch of Oxbridge wankers who want to become millionaires by dumbing-down to TV viewers they despise?

RALPH: It’s odd that being ‘intellectual’ or having gone to Oxbridge (I didn’t, and therefore the material isn’t ‘Oxbridge’) seems almost to get people on their guard these days. There’s certainly been a change in the zeitgeist since Beyond The Fringe. Obviously if you judge a show or a performer by which university they attended, feel free in advance not to watch, but Cambridge and Oxford do consistently turn out some incredibly talented comics and always will. There are obviously thousands of talented comics from everywhere else too, and from all or none of the other universities, but Oxbridge does draw the good ‘uns like moths to a flame.

ME: So why are you doing comedy?

RALPH: I’ve been fascinated by it since I was very young, and I staged my first sketch show when I was 14,

ME: What happened? I like quirky anecdotes. Embarrassing is good.

RALPH: This first show was called Insanity Has Its Disadvantages and was staged at the Burton Taylor Theatre in Oxford. One of the sketches was just me sat onstage reading a poem about buttocks. Excruciating. I think everyone but me was very embarrassed by it. But it was a start. Since then, I’ve never really stopped. I think the appeal lies in the instant reward, really – getting a very tangible recognition of one’s work.

ME: You’re being bleedin’ intellectual again. You mean audience applause gives you a hard-on?

RALPH: No, applause doesn’t. Audiences do. And it has to stem from falling in love with other people’s comedy at some stage in your life. That certainly happened for me, over and over again, with Monty Python, The Young Ones, The Simpsons, Peter Cook…

ME: That’s a varied bunch. What links them together?

RALPH: I think they all tread a fine line between the real and the surreal and are excellent at employing verbal comedy to good effect (Peter Cook in particular; less so The Young Ones). I don’t count The Young Ones as seminal, but your comedy background hinges around when you encounter certain programmes. I suppose The Young Ones spoke to me loudest when I was about 13. And Peter Cook, for example, is someone who really grew on me over time and who remains an enormous influence.

ME: All those people are male. The Awkward Silence is two blokes. Did you think of having a female third member of the group? Or a black lesbian in a wheelchair?

RALPH: Over two years ago we did sort of start off with a girl in the group but she had to pull out. All of the black lesbians in wheelchairs that I know are in other sketch groups.

ME: Why do sketch comedy? It’s dead, isn’t it?

RALPH: Obviously not. And, even if it were, a resurgence would be necessary.

ME: Why?

RALPH: Because just watching panel shows and stand-up is fucking boring. And because sketch is often host to a much wider variety of interesting forms of expression. There are bags of wonderfully talented sketch groups out on the live circuit but it’s a form that’s often difficult to translate to radio or TV – it tends to have a lower hit-rate than stand-up or panel shows but, when done well, it can succeed in being incredibly exciting. And writing and performing sketch leads you on to trying your hand at other things anyway, like sitcoms or prostitution.

ME: Do you want to add a half-sentence extra as a punchline for the mention of prostitution?

RALPH: No.

ME: Isn’t sketch/ensemble comedy for people who don’t have the balls to do solo stand-up?

RALPH: I certainly have neither the balls nor the talent to do solo stand-up. But I also much prefer sketch – So it’s not a plan B.

ME: What is in your psychological make-up which makes that so?

RALPH: I suppose those who do sketch comedy – like myself – prefer playing different people and portraying different worlds. That’s why my sketches aren’t very realist and tend to be a little odd. The reluctance to do stand-up is often – and I don’t want to get too psychoanalytical here – for fear of giving off a genuine representation of yourself onstage. Certainly it is with me anyway. Shit, I’ve said too much… I’d certainly like to explore solo character stuff at some point because I think I’d regret not doing so. But there’s no doubt it takes more balls to be a stand-up than a sketch act.

ME: Why?

RALPH: Because you haven’t got the safety net of other performers; because you’re far more likely to get heckled; because your journeys are more lonely; because people might not like ‘the real you’; because you haven’t got as many excuses to dress up like a bell-end. Those guys have got it tough… On the other hand one can just ‘get up and do’ stand-up, so often it’s practised by people who haven’t put in the level of preparation that goes into sketch. It’s easier to be good as a stand-up but it’s also easier to be bad.

ME: Why?

RALPH: It’s easier to be bad because lots of people do believe that it’s possible to just ‘get up and do’ stand-up and be good at it whereas, with sketch comedy, the gaping flaws in the plan are given more time – and people – to dawn on you. It’s (arguably) easier to be good at stand-up because you can perform far more frequently; you’re your own boss; you have more of a rapport with the audience; and because stand-up is much more widely understood to be an actual thing. Saying that you do ‘sketch comedy’ still elicits fairly blank expressions in most people.

ME: Isn’t sketch comedy for frustrated actors not comedians?

RALPH: I think you’re onto something there. Although I myself am a frustrated writer,

ME: Are you a writer who performs to make sure it’s presented correctly? Or a performer who writes to make sure you get suitable material?

RALPH: Definitely the former. If I could give up either performing or writing, I’d give up performing in a heartbeat. I love watching other people perform my stuff very well – that’s perhaps even better than performing it myself. I’m not a frustrated actor. Vyvyan’s an actor but he’s not frustrated, except with his uncanny ability to always lose items of clothing. We never do a gig without him losing an umbrella or a sock.

ME: So what’s the difference between actors, stand-up comedians and sketch performers?

RALPH: Actors – serious…. Stand-ups – mental… Sketch performers – deluded.

ME: What’s happening on 1st December?

RALPH: We are hosting our fourteenth Special Guests night at the Wilmington Arms.

We aim to do these monthly. On the 1st we’ve got Colin Hoult, Jenny Fawcett, Max & Ivan, The Pin and Paul Fung. We were originally going to have the show on 28th November and were going to celebrate the 100th anniversary – to the day – of the independence of Albania.

ME: So your one-line sales pitch for the re-scheduled show would be…?

RALPH: Just when you think Bette Midler couldn’t have another birthday, she goes off and has another birthday… Ever wanted to celebrate Bette Midler’s 67th birthday in a pub in Clerkenwell? Then this is the gig for you.

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